Court Of Appeals Determines That Public Records Act Exemption For Proprietary Information Obtained By Public Agencies Can Be Asserted By Private Parties
In Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, LLP v. State, Division II of the Court of Appeals decided that private parties may assert the Public Records Act exemption in RCW 42.56.270(1) for certain financial, commercial, and proprietary information obtained by public agencies. Private parties may also assert that disclosure would produce a public loss, regardless of the agency’s position on the issue. However, the court declined to address the open question in Washington of the proper standard for an injunction based on an “other statute” exemption under RCW 42.56.070(1).
The law firm of Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd sought to enjoin release of information that the firm submitted to the Washington Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) as part of its response to a request for qualifications. Although the Court of Appeals held that the law firm could assert the proprietary information exemption under RCW 42.56.270(1), it reversed the trial court’s decision to issue a permanent injunction, finding that the law firm failed to prove that the exemption, or any other exemption, prevented disclosure of the information at issue in response to a public records request.
The court first addressed exemption under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), Ch. 19.108 RCW. In rejecting application of that exemption, the court held that the law firm failed to show that its fee proposal and insurance information differed significantly from information already in the public arena. The court also held that the firm had not demonstrated any reasonable attempts to keep previously published client information secret and that its reference lists, by their very nature, were created for dissemination outside the firm. Accordingly, the UTSA did not prevent disclosure.
Notably, the court declined to address the undecided issue of whether the PRA injunction standard, RCW 42.56.540, applies when a court relies on an “other statute” exemption, such as the UTSA, rather than a PRA exemption to bar disclosure. The AGO and the law firm argued that such “other statutes” provide independent bases for enjoining disclosure without consideration of the PRA’s injunction requirements. The requestor of the records and amici curiae argued that the PRA injunction standard must be satisfied, even for exemptions pursuant to “other statutes.” Although the parties urged the court to provide guidance, the court declined to address the issue because the UTSA did not exempt the materials at issue.
The court also rejected the law firm’s asserted PRA exemptions. The court largely focused on the proprietary information exemption under RCW 42.56.270, which exempts from disclosure “[v]aluable formulae, designs, drawings, computer source code or object code, and research data obtained by any agency within five years of the request for disclosure when disclosure would produce private gain and public loss.” RCW 42.56.270(1). As a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeals rejected the requestor’s argument that a private party cannot invoke the exemption or assert a public loss. First, nothing in the statute restricted its application to public agencies, and unrestricted application was not inconsistent with the purpose of exemption. Second, because the PRA expressly allows interested parties to seek an injunction to prevent disclosure of exempt public records, private parties can assert public loss, even if the public agency chooses not to do so.
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals held that the law firm failed to establish public loss under the exemption. Because the firm also could not establish any other exemption under the PRA for the information sought, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s permanent injunction as to those records. However, the court declined to award penalties, costs, or attorney’s fees to the requestor because the AGO did not wrongfully withhold the records; it withheld the records pursuant to a court order. Thus, the requestor did not “prevail” against the agency under RCW 42.56.550(4).